Repealing Civil Rights Law 50-a
Civil Rights Law 50-a has been around since 1976. It’s initial purpose was to prevent criminal defense lawyers from using “unverified and unsubstantiated” civilian complaints against officers testifying as witnesses in court. Over the years, the law has been interpreted more broadly, especially under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio. For example, the law is being used to prevent the disclosure of specific information related to officers’ personnel records, such as disciplinary records.
As it’s currently being used, Section 50-a gives officers a blanket shield from public disclosure or accountability and unfairly puts the burden on the community to expose abuses and push for accountability. Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, told the New York Times,
“It took years, but now you have what essentially is the ‘blue wall of silence’ that has been codified by 50-a.”
The law has steadfast support from the city’s police unions, which continue to fight against the disclosure of records related to police misconduct. They have even asserted that footage from police body worn cameras should also be protected by Section 50-a. Fortunately, in February 2019 a New York State court ruled that NYPD body camera footage can be made public and should not be considered a personnel record. Police unions also argue that the law helps protects officers from unwarranted invasions of privacy, yet advocates argue that many of the safeguards included in Section 50-a are already in the New York Public Officers Law and the Freedom of Information Law.
Public interest in repealing the law has grown over the last few years. High profile cases, like the police killing of Eric Garner and aggressive arrest of tennis star James Blake – both captured on video – have shed light on the challenges this law presents to lawyers, journalists and advocates working to secure justice.
Eyewitness video is key in exposing and corroborating incidents of misconduct, but greater transparency is critical in the fight for truth and accountability. WITNESS is joining local advocates like the NYCLU, Legal Aid Society, Communities United for Police Reform and the New York City Bar Association and to call for New York State to repeal Section 50-a. Learn more about how you can take action here.
Exploring Sustainable Solutions
Across the U.S., activists, researchers and journalists are working to make police data more accessible and transparent. There are a handful of crowdsourced databases and projects that track police killings, misconduct, complaints, etc., but few of them collect or analyze video.
This project aims to support the creation of flexible, interactive, sustainable and secure platforms that enable distributed video submission as well as new models for contextualizing video for impact storytelling.
While there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to these issues, we think there are some shared values and basic practices that can help manage collections of human rights videos as safely and ethically as possible. For example, if groups documenting police abuse across the U.S. used similar data models and collection processes, this would make the data easier to share across groups and lead to more robust datasets.
WITNESS is working with groups like Berkeley Copwatch to test our learnings and the tools we created for this project with El Grito, and hope to continue this process with others. We are also working with data scientists, journalists, archivists, lawyers and activists around the world to further discuss these values and document, test and create innovative solutions.
Get in touch if you’d like to share your thoughts or feedback.
Basic Practices & Shared Values We’re Working Towards
Other Projects Tracking Police Abuse
These reports and advocacy campaigns provide in-depth information about the issues within our police departments and criminal justice system.